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Afghanistan: Loya Jirga To Begin Amid Tough Political Choices

Afghanistan's emergency Loya Jirga is set to begin on 10 June in what Afghans and the international community hope will be a major step toward the country's political reintegration. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports from Kabul on what the Loya Jirga will do and why hopes for it are so high.

Kabul, 7 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- When the emergency Loya Jirga convenes on 10 June, it will bring together 1,501 delegates from across Afghanistan under a single giant tent to negotiate and, ultimately, approve the structure and key personnel of the country's next temporary government.

No one knows precisely how long the process may take. The UN-assisted Independent Commission, which has organized the event, has said it hopes the deliberations will be over by 16 June. But it also has said that they could go days longer if need be. The only fixed deadline is 22 June, the date set by the Bonn accord for Afghanistan's new Temporary Administration to take office.

The Temporary Administration will be responsible for leading the country to national elections within two years.

The 1,501 delegates face several tasks, none of which -- given Afghanistan's current political fragmentation -- will be easy. They must approve proposals for the Temporary Administration's head of state and government, approve the form of key institutions, such as the legislature, and approve a new chief justice for the Supreme Court.

At the same time, the delegates must decide for themselves how to interpret a provision in the Bonn accord giving them power to approve the new administration's key personnel. If the assembly chooses to fully exercise that power, it could determine who will hold ministerial and other top positions.

Here in Kabul, many political observers say the leading candidate for the Transitional Authority's head of state is deposed King Mohammad Zahir Shah. The ex-king, who returned from a 29-year exile in Rome less than two months ago, is widely regarded as a unifying figure. He is strongly supported by the country's majority Pashtuns and is considered to be acceptable to the sizeable ethnic Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, Turkmen, and other minorities.

However, any consensus on the 87-year-old ex-king as head of state could run into trouble if Pashtun delegates insist he resume his reign, most likely as a constitutional monarch. That would preserve the Pashtun's Durrani dynasty, which has ruled the country for most of the past 200 years, and it would appeal to Pashtun tribal elders, who will be well represented in the assembly. But many ethnic minority leaders, as well as many Islamist former mujahedin commanders who fought the Soviets, would strongly oppose any effort to restore the monarchy. Zahir Shah himself has said he feels the time for royalty is past, but he also has previously said he will accept whatever the people want of him.

The leading candidate for head of government is Hamid Karzai, the ethnic Pashtun chairman of the UN-brokered interim administration.

Many Afghans regard him as the favorite of the international community, upon which the country depends for reconstruction, and he has shown he can work with the country's ethnic minority leaders who presently hold power in Kabul -- chiefly a faction composed of former ethnic-Tajik fighters from the northern Panjshir valley. There are questions whether Karzai will have broad support from Pashtun leaders, some of whom have accused him of being overly accommodating to the Panjshiris.

Pashtun doubts about Karzai could complicate not only his approval but -- if he is approved -- his choice of cabinet members. It remains to be seen whether the Pashtuns and groups other than the Panjshiris would leave it to Karzai to decide the composition of the new government or, instead, use their power of approval to participate in the decisions themselves.

Many Pashtun leaders resent the fact the Panjshiris currently hold the three key ministries of defense, interior, and foreign affairs. They want that division of power, which was made in Bonn after the former Northern Alliance took Kabul following the Taliban's collapse, to be redressed in their favor.

Despite these potentially divisive political questions, the Loya Jirga's organizers and international observers say that they are confident the Jirga will result in the approval of a viable new government.

They base their hopes on the fact that hundreds of delegates to the Jirga were popularly elected in district polls on promises to represent their regions but also to promote the country's process of reintegration and reconstruction.

In addition to these elected representatives, another 450 delegates to the Jirga were selected nationwide by the Independent Commission from special interest groups, including the business and religious communities and women. According to the most recent figures, 180 women are expected to attend the Jirga -- though the Independent Commission has yet to release the final list of delegates.

But not all has gone smoothly. Regional strongmen intent on preserving their power have resorted to intimidation and vote-rigging in some elections. There have also been complaints, particularly in Pashtun areas, that the apportionment of seats was not always fair because the size of the population in some districts was underestimated.

Both those complaints were expressed earlier this week to Radio Free Afghanistan by one community leader from the Pashtun-majority eastern province of Nangarhar. Mohammed Shir, a schoolteacher from Jalalabad, described the complaints in his district this way:

"We have been given less seats than we deserved. And we talked about that issue with the Special Commission and asked for more representation. As far as I am aware, Nangarhar province should be in the second category (of provinces by population size) but this time it was classed in the (less-populous) third category. And some people who used force (to intimidate other candidates) were elected."

The Independent Commission has said it has tried to fairly represent Afghanistan's population but says the task was complicated by the absence of a national census since 1978. It also acknowledges intimidation took place in some elections.

Government officials have publicly said that force or bribery may have been used to decide the outcome of 10 percent of the polls, while privately some diplomats say the figure could be higher.

Commission members say that those who resorted to force to win district elections are individuals determined to hold on to power even at the expense of rebuilding the nation. But they say they do not believe there are enough of them to sabotage the Loya Jirga process.

Mahbooba Hoquqmal, the vice chairwoman of the Independent Commission, said recently that such "saboteurs" are far outnumbered by fairly elected delegates.

"It is quite clear that when some 'saboteurs' participate in the Loya Jirga, that endangers the Loya Jirga process. But I think that these people will not have a strong influence. It is possible that some people who have their own goals and objectives will participate in the Loya Jirga but I think they will not enjoy a majority."

The Loya Jirga -- or Grand Council -- is a traditional consultative system that Afghans have used for centuries to settle national issues or to rally behind a cause. In the past they have convened for purposes as varied as recognizing a new ruler who has taken power by force or plotting the overthrow of a despot.

Historically, Jirgas have been colorful, rowdy affairs with tribal leaders from remote provinces meeting with politicians, faction commanders, and religious leaders in debates lasting from morning to night.

The last Loya Jirga was held in 1987, but many dispute its validity because it was convened by a Soviet-backed government while foreign troops were on Afghan soil.